beauty in nature

Resources for Reexamining Columbus Day

by Marsha Rakestraw

Today is Columbus Day in the U.S., and this year, as in generations before, elementary schools all across the country will teach another group of children that, “In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” and discovered America.

It is a fact that Columbus sailed to North America in 1492 and encountered Native peoples, but there’s a whole lot that seems to get left out about what happened after that.

Like mass murder and the transatlantic slave trade.

While many adults no longer think much about Columbus Day as anything other than another federal holiday, and while children are taught about explorers who “discovered” lands and peoples around the world, for a growing number of people, Columbus Day has become known as “Genocide Day” or “Indigenous People’s Day,” a time to acknowledge the role that Columbus played in the enslavement, destruction, and genocide of cultures flourishing in “America” for thousands of years.

Just as with all issues, there is no simple answer or easy either/or framing.

But what is evident is that most people are taught a single view of events from the perspective of Columbus as intrepid explorer, tradesman, and “discover of the New World,” without exploring what life was like for natives before the three ships landed, or what happened in the aftermath.

While resources for alternative and more complex viewpoints are fairly scarce, there are several excellent ones available.

Whether you’re an educator, parent, or concerned citizen, these resources can help you share a broader perspective with others.

Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years by Rethinking Schools (192 p) (2003)
This book from Rethinking Schools offers ”resources for teaching about the impact of the arrival of Columbus in the Americas” and includes ideas for kindergarten through college.

Lies My Teacher Told Me About Christopher Columbus by James W. Loewen (48 p) (2014).
This book offers Loewen’s analysis of how a variety of textbooks (older and newer) treat the Columbus “story,” as well as information about Columbus and American Indians that are often little-told. The book includes a poster debunking a variety of myths. This resource is useful for helping students think critically and seek out accurate information.

A Coyote Columbus Story by Thomas King (32 p) (2002)
This children’s book explores what happens to humans when Trickster Coyote meets Columbus.

Morning Girl by Michael Dorris (80 p) (1992)
This book for older children tells the story of a Taino culture, just before they meet Columbus.

Black Ants and Buddhists: Thinking Critically and Teaching Differently in the Primary Grades by Mary Cowhey (256 p) (2006)
In a chapter of her book Mary Cowhey offers a description of how she has explored with her second graders the issue of Columbus’s encounters with native peoples.

“Columbus Day” via The Oatmeal.
Artist and social commentator Matthew Inman created an illustrated essay highlighting many little-known pieces of information about Columbus’s excursions and offering his views about the national holiday. A useful resource for thinking critically about what we’re taught about Columbus, as well as for verifying the accuracy of the essay’s assertions.

“The People vs. Columbus, et al” by Bill Bigelow
This teaching activity uses roleplay to determine “who is responsible for the death of millions of Tainos on the island of Hispaniola in the late 15th century.”

“Columbus: The Hidden History” (2011)
This student-created short documentary takes a look at some of the views and information that are often left out of modern textbooks and teachings about Columbus.

“Discovering Columbus: Re-reading the Past” by Bill Bigelow
This activity asks students to analyze and think critically about how Columbus’s story is portrayed in a variety of textbooks.

What meaningful resources have you used to help students (or others) explore and think critically about all the issues connected to Columbus’s expeditions?